I called this blog “Garden, Forest, Field” for a reason. Most of my posts are about the garden and what I harvest from it, and how I cook it or preserve it, with some recipes for using the wild game we eat, usually bear and venison and fish. The blog has evolved into a mostly-about-cooking-whatever-I’m-cooking blog, with occasional forays into the philosophical or the profound. (Thus speaks the former professor!)
Today’s post might seem a bit esoteric for some. I mean, how many of those who read this blog actually hunt, or hunt bears, or cook bear meat, or would have access to bear fat? Probably very few. It might be useful to note that this technique of rendering an animal’s fat works for any animal fat, so no matter what animal you harvest, if the meat is good, with a little extra work you can have a source of pure fat for cooking and baking.
Our pioneer forebears had to render animal fat. They needed it for all sorts of things. Fat lamps for light in the winter, fat for biscuits and bread, fat for waterproofing leather shoes and horse tack, fat for sealing the tops of crocks of pickled meats, fat for soap-making, fat for soothing winter-chapped hands, feet, and lips. Fat for calories on cold winter days and nights.
In our times, fat has been the enemy, and then the worm turned, and fat has become our friend. Healthy fat. Clean fat. (For the complete low-down on dietary fat, and I do mean complete, here’s a wonderful guide: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/choosing-healthy-fats.htm.)
As I was rendering fifteen pounds of bear fat yesterday, cut from the carcass of a young bear last September, I was thinking about that. Clean fat. Organic meat. Many, many people ask me, “What does bear meat taste like?” And they ask it with wrinkled nose and rolled-up eyes. I don’t know where this perception comes from, that bear meat is universally nasty. It can be. Any meat can be nasty, depending on what the animal has been eating. I’ve eaten nasty-tasting beef and pork. Which calls into question what the feed lots are feeding those animals and the horrific ways they are killed and processed. I have had nasty-tasting bear meat. When I was a kid, camping out for the summer with my parents up in the mountains to shorten my logger father’s travel time to work, somebody shot one of the bears who was getting into the garbage at the little dump for the company campground. We were given some of the meat. It was nasty. (We ate it, though!) It tasted like garbage. Well, duh. That’s what it had been eating! I would imagine that bears who’ve been feasting on fish would taste rather strong and fishy, although I’ve not ever eaten a fish-eating grizzly.
The black bears we harvest come from high in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains. They live far from human habitation, and they haven’t been eating garbage. Bears are omnivores, so they have been eating any and every thing they can get past their teeth. They aren’t big hunters, but they will capture and eat young fawns, small rodents, and large insects, as well as grubs and larvae from rotten stumps and logs, roots, berries, grass, and yes, carrion of all kinds. But it’s organic carrion! If bears lived on carrion alone, I suppose their flesh would taste nasty, but they don’t, so evidently a little carrion doesn’t hurt the meat’s flavor. There are very few fish anymore in the lakes and streams where we hunt, so the bears aren’t eating much fish. All this to say that the three bears we have taken from the mountains have been outstanding eating. And when you think about it, why wouldn’t they be? The bears have been eating a completely organic, completely natural diet. This is the highest order of clean meat, which is going to produce the highest order of clean fat.
The flavor of this bear meat is something like grass-fed beef, only better. It is more flavorful, although I would be hard pressed to explain how. When the bears are taken in the August hunting period, with a bow, they are still very lean. There is virtually no fat to harvest. The mid-September bear this year had a couple of inches of fat under the pelt, and it was so fresh and new, it liquefied in my hands as the guys cut it off and gave it to me to bag. I put 3 five-pound bags of fat into the travel trailer freezer, and that was the fat I rendered yesterday.
Before I started this process, I read about it online and asked friends who had rendered other fats. I’m thankful to those who have gone before me, especially David Draper, the Wild Chef, on the Field & Stream blog site, and my friend, Shannon Luzum. Here’s how I did it, and remember, this method works for all animal fats you might want to render: beef, deer, duck, etc.
First, thanks to my soap-making friend, Shannon of Stacked Stone Farm, I knew to grind up the fat for faster rendering. That made a huge difference in the time it took. This was important because it took all day to render that much fat in my big stock pot, and it had to be stirred several times each hour so that it wouldn’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
First, I cut the fat into cubes and strips to make it easier to feed through the meat grinder’s chute. (The guys had been really careful to keep the fat clean as they cut if off and handed it to me. I only had to rinse one piece to get rid of some forest debris and a couple of hairs. That’s important, of course, that the fat be clean. But it is easy to rinse and pat dry with paper towels if you need to.) As I was portioning the fat, I cut off any little bits of red meat. There wasn’t much. My guys are accomplished skinners, and they keep things really clean. I set the scraps aside to render separately, because I’d read that meat could taint the flavor of the fat. That scrap fat will be used for boot grease.
Then, using our son’s electric meat grinder with the large screen in place (we tried the other two screens but they clogged up), we ground the fat into small bits. Because it had completely thawed by the time we started, some of the fat liquefied as it was ground. This wasn’t really a problem as it started melting as soon as the bottom of the pan got hot on the burner. I think it would have been easier to grind if the fat had still been semi-frozen, but the timing just didn’t work out that way for us.
As the fat was ground, I removed it to my big, 12-quart stainless steel stock pot. I turned the burner on medium to get the fat melting, which it did within five minutes or so, and then I turned the heat down to medium-low so that the fat wouldn’t burn. I kept the heat at the point where the fat was at a gentle sizzle. It sizzles as the water in the fat cooks off.
Surprising, there’s a good bit of connective tissue holding the fat together. That stuff can clog the grinder screen and wrap around the screw, but it wasn’t a problem until Dennis was taking the grinder apart to clean it. By the time we got all the fat ground, the stock pot was half full, which is about 6 quarts of fat particles.
Then it was just a matter of keeping the heat low and slow, watching the sizzle, and stirring. The fat liquefied very easily. It took about 9 hours to finish rendering. It did tend to stick to the bottom if it wasn’t stirred about every fifteen minutes.
Rendering was complete when the sizzle and bubble slowed to almost nothing, the tiny particles that were left were golden brown, and they sank to the bottom of the pan. The fat floated on top and was a clear golden color.
Then, it was time to take the pot off the heat and let it cool slightly. I put the pot in my cold laundry room with the window open (it was 32 degrees outside) to cool off enough for straining.
For straining the fat, I set up a small sieve lined with the nylon tulle that I use for straining everything from homemade ricotta cheese to berries for jelly or juice. I like it better than cheesecloth because it has smaller holes and is easily washed for the next use.
I needed the fat to be cool enough to go into the containers I’d chosen to store it in. I thought about mason jars, until I realized that I was going to have something like 6 quarts of fat to store. The fat will keep for several months in the fridge, and practically forever in the freezer, so I knew I needed to store the majority of it in the freezer. The way things tumble out of my freezer and onto my feet on a regular basis meant that mason jars were not a good choice. I thought about it all day as the fat was rendering, and I decided to raid the recycle bin for plastic butter and cottage cheese containers. These are one pound containers with tight fitting lids that have the benefit of being stackable in the freezer. Also, I can take one container out of the freezer before I want to use it, stash it in the fridge, and probably use it all up within a couple of months. I’m not going to be eating or using this fat every day, so this much of it will probably last me a year!
It took a couple of hours in a cold room for the fat to cool down to warmish. Even though it had been on a low temperature through the last hours of rendering, it was still sizzling hot when I took it off the stove. After about two hours in a cold room, the sides of the pan were just warm, the fat was still liquid, and was ready for straining.
I strained the fat into my biggest plastic mixing bowl with a pouring lip. Then I poured it into the containers that we’d set up on a cookie sheet. I left an inch or so of headspace in each container to allow for any expansion that might occur as the fat froze. I didn’t put the containers into the freezer right away because I didn’t want any condensation from the still warm fat to appear on the inside of the lids. The scrap fat was strained last and put into a separate container. There was only about a half a cup of it. I left the containers uncovered in the laundry room with the window cracked, overnight.
All the cracklin’ bits we put in an empty coffee can for the chickens. Some people eat them, but all they tasted like to me was fat, and I knew the chickens would think they were bugs. With snow on the ground now, the chickens could use a bug replacement. And I can report that they really loved their first small helping.
The next morning, to my surprise, the fat was still liquid. (From the reading I’ve done, I’m guessing that this fat, maybe because it was so newly formed on the bear, is mostly unsaturated, as it remained liquid at a cold room temperature, but I’m not entirely sure about this. If I were Alton Brown, I could explain it, but I’m not, so I can’t.) The fat was cool, but there was no solidification, except a trace amount on the one small container of scrap fat. I put the lids on the containers, labeled them, and then stashed them in the freezer, still on the cookie sheet to contain any possible spillage before the fat froze.
So, now I have this beautiful, rendered bear fat, and what am I going to do with it? I tasted the fat, and it has no flavor. None. No meaty taste, no gamey taste. It is virtually flavorless, which will make it fine for flaky pastry doughs (bear pot pie and pear mincemeat pie coming up!), and I’m looking forward to trying it in biscuits with bear roast and dumplings on a bear stew. I’m going to try frying with it. I’ve heard of duck fat fries although I have not eaten them. Maybe I’ll try bear fat fries. Or bear fat doughnuts! And I’m really considering making some bear tamales, with bear meat in the filling and bear fat in the masa. I plan to use it in recipes as lard would be used, and I expect to have to experiment. So stayed tuned for these and other adventures with rendered bear fat.
Now for a brief foray into philosophy. Rendering the bear fat was a day’s work. I had time to do other things as the fat was cooking down, and it wasn’t an arduous process, from grinding to cooking to straining. But I would probably have done it even so, because I think it’s important to follow a “waste not, want not” practice. (It’s one thing to have a waste not, want not philosophy; it’s another altogether to put it into practice!) I grew up that way, raised by parents who had themselves grown up in poverty and who struggled their way out during my lifetime. I’ve lived through lean years, when all we had to eat was what Mama grew or scavenged and put in the freezer or jars, and what Daddy brought home with a bullet (or hook) hole in it, whether it was in season or not.
But there’s more to it than that for me. I don’t have to try to find a way to use every scrap of a vegetable or fruit harvest, or an animal. But I just don’t want to waste any of what I’m given. That’s dishonoring the gift. If an animal gives up its life so I can eat, I show respect by not wasting a bit of it, from scraps to bones to fat. I show respect for the Creator, the earth, and the life that grows on it by being a wise steward of what’s given me for my life. And if that means cooking down deer bones for stock or rendering bear fat for baking and frying, I’ll do it. And I’ll feel good about it.